Book Reviews

Book Cover  The Civil War of 1812

Book Cover – The Civil War of 1812

The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels and Indian Allies

by Alan Taylor
New York: Alfred Knopf, 2010
620 pages,  $25.50 HC

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Reviewed by John R. Grodzinski,

The Civil War of 1812 presents the Anglo-American conflict fought between 1812 and 1815 as a series of civil clashes along the frontier of Upper Canada. According to Alan Taylor, who teaches American and Canadian history at the University of California, the War of 1812 has four dimensions, each a contest in its own right. The first was the continued struggle between Loyalists and Americans for the control of Upper Canada; next was the political partisanship in the United States that nearly ignited a war between the states; the third was the importation of the struggle for Irish independence from Britain to the frontier of British North America; and the final contest was between the native peoples living on either side of the border. At 620 pages, the book is a hefty and sometimes dense study that seems not as deeply researched or as clearly written as the jacket notes suggest.

To demonstrate his case, Taylor concentrates upon events along the borderlands of Upper Canada. He believes that throughout the three campaign seasons, neither Britain nor the United States was capable of asserting their vision of North America, either imperial or republican, over the other, and both decided to co-exist. This argument assumes that Britain’s ultimate goal was to smash the new republic, which is false. Because the author limits the British perspective of the war to events around Upper Canada, much of the British context of the war is lost. For example, British political leaders are reduced to an anonymous group known as the “Imperial Lords,” (this term is used frequently, and examples appear at pp. 78, 150, 172, 403, and 435). George III, who was ill at the time and had no direct bearing on the war, is mentioned four times, while the Prince Regent, who assumed many of the monarch’s responsibilities in 1811, is only mentioned in passing. Prime Minister the Earl of Liverpool is ignored, while Earl Bathurst, the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, and the cabinet official responsible for the conduct of the war, is only mentioned once. Unlike their nameless British counterparts, American political and military leaders, such as James Madison, James Monroe, James Wilkinson, Jacob Brown, Thomas Jefferson and even George Washington, appear throughout the text.

Thus British strategy, at least until 13 October 1812, is presented as a struggle between the dashing and powerfully-built Major-General Isaac Brock and the cautious Captain General and Governor-in-Chief of British North America, Lieutenant-General Sir George Prevost, while the rationale of the massive reinforcement sent by Britain to North America in 1814 is never fully explained. On the other hand, the war in Europe against Bonaparte is hardly described. The Prince Regent’s instructions to Prevost, written in 1811, were clear in that he was to avoid any situation that would cause a large-scale diversion of resources from Europe. However, when the circumstances dictating that strategy changed, Britain did send substantial reinforcements to North America in 1814, not so much to humble the Americans, but to secure the frontier of the Canadas in anticipation of the coming peace talks.

While Upper Canada was certainly the cockpit of the North American war, the author’s decision to restrict the discussion to that province ignores the remainder of British North America. Little consideration is made of  Lower Canada’s largely French population, which totalled approximately half of British North America’s 600,000 people. Lower Canada is described curiously as “… a Catholic country occupied by British troops” that “… resembled Ireland with a French twist.” Yet, that province played an important role in the war effort. In the Maritimes, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick shared strong cultural and economic ties with New England, so why is there no consideration of the republican-imperial dynamic that occurred in that region?

The Native peoples factor prominently in the text, and, as the author acknowledges, they were instrumental in successfully challenging American plans during 1812 and 1813.  With the peace, many of Britain’s native allies found themselves in American territory, and the author contends that the Americans exploited the “ambiguous” peace treaty to consolidate their dominion over natives within their territory, ending British influence over them, thereby allowing the Americans to gain continental predominance. The apparent abandonment by Britain of their native allies is a common theme in War of 1812 historiography. However, little acknowledgement is given to British efforts to secure native rights in the ninth article of the treaty, and the American decision to ignore these clauses.

There exists a nagging host of minor errors throughout the book. None are terribly serious, but they are enough to distract the reader’s attention, and to question the author’s understanding of the British perspective of the war. Quebec’s defences did not include a citadel in 1785; Guy Carleton would certainly not have described himself a “loyal Irishman;” the number of British subjects in “Canada” in 1785 is said to be 100,000 people, but the geographic extent of this territory is undefined. Why not use census data from the early-1800s?  Peter Hunter is wrongly identified as the Governor-General of Canada, when he was, in fact, Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada between 1799 and 1805; the wrong date is given for the repeal of the Orders in Council in 1812; and it was the Prince Regent, and not Parliament, who ratified the Treaty of Ghent on 27 December 1814.

While this book is disappointing from the British perspective, it offers several interesting insights: a population that had not been completely separated by the American War of Independence became more distinctive in the aftermath of the War of 1812; and the only quantifiable outcome of the conflict was the confirmation of the existing border between America and British North America. The author also provides interesting examples of contrasts between Upper Canada and the American republic before the war, such as the lower tax burden carried by Upper Canadians as compared to that borne by the Americans. Taylor’s descriptions of the interactions between soldiers and civilians are vivid, and in contrast to other works.  For example, the operations of the two fine American divisions in the Niagara Peninsula during the summer and fall of 1814, while valiant, did little towards securing American victory, and they actually “… wasted the nation’s finest troops in futile battles.” Tactical successes cannot make up for strategic failure, and this appears to be the author’s lesson of the war, that, superficially at least, the post-war American idea of victory was a crafted mirage.

Major  John R. Grodzinski, CD, PhD, an armoured officer, teaches history at the Royal Military College of Canada. He is a subject matter expert on the War of 1812.